The Kansas Senate's top Democrat says the state shouldn't be cutting education funding to help balance its budget and is pushing for higher income taxes on the state's wealthiest families.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka told the Associated Press Thursday that cutting aid to public schools would send the wrong signal to the Kansas Supreme Court.
That is not to mention the trouble proposed cuts could mean for School districts. Thursday the Senate began debating a proposal that would cut 5 percent from education budget for this fiscal year. That would mean $857,4120 in cuts for Newton USD 373 to be made before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“What that means, this time of year. … Salaries are pretty locked in, we can make a few adjustments here and there. We can not hire a custodian or para when someone quits,” Miller said. “It does not make huge progress on meeting that target. … We will do what we can. It is difficult. This is February.”
After a bill is debated and signed into law, there will be, at most, three months left in the school year.
The supreme court, which is Hensley's concern, is considering a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four districts and whether the state's total spending on schools is adequate.
Hensley also said Democrats want to reinstate a third personal income tax bracket for wealthy taxpayers. The state went from three brackets to two in 2012 as GOP lawmakers slashed income taxes at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging.
The state is facing projected budget shortfalls totaling nearly $1.1 billion through June 2019.
Before Thursday ended, GOP leaders in the state Senate canceled debate on a bill that would have cut aid to public schools by $128 million, or $279 per student, by June 30. They also did so on a measure that would have increased personal income taxes to raise $660 million over two years, starting in July.
Sen. Ed Berger of Hutchinson told fellow Republicans during a Tuesday evening caucus that he would seek to reduce the school funding cut to about $51 million.
“It is too early to do 'the sky is falling' on any reductions,” Miller said. “Obviously we are not in favor of any reductions that are coming.”
The state faces projected budget shortfalls totaling nearly $1.1 billion through June 2019.
The budget woes have led two major ratings agencies, Moody's and S&P Global Ratings, to downgrade the state's credit ratings a total of three times in three years. S&P downgraded Kansas' rating in July 2016 to AA-, among the lowest for any state, and announced Wednesday that it was lowering its credit outlook for Kansas from stable to negative.
“I totally understand the quandary that they are in,” Miller said. “You can not manufacture revenue quickly. I am hoping that they can find some other ways to finish out the fiscal year and plan for next year without cutting schools again.”
Supporters of the education funding cuts believe most of the state's 286 local school districts can tap reserve funds to tide themselves over, with the promise that the cuts might be restored later.
There is some truth to that, according to Miller. The Newton school district holds about $1.3 million in reserves.
“That is, frankly, quite likely what we will have to do,” Miller said. “We cannot make these kinds of reductions and savings mid-year.”
But some GOP senators said they didn't want to cut aid to public schools so much with only a few months left in the school year. Freshman Republican Sen. Ed Berger, of Hutchinson, called the proposed education funding cuts "draconian."
Democrats strongly opposed the cuts. Hensley said GOP leaders "went too far."
"I don't think we need to be cutting education," Hensley said.
Bipartisan opposition to cutting education funding also has emerged in the House. Its Taxation Committee planned to debate proposals late Thursday for increasing income taxes to raise $917 million over two years.
The Senate's tax bill would have ended an income tax exemption for the profits of more than 330,000 farmers and business owners, a policy championed by Brownback as an economic stimulus. The measure also would have increased all income taxpayers' rates, including the state's poorest families; and would have boosted the top tax rate to 4.9 percent, from 4.6 percent.